Dale Ellis should've known better. Having played in more than 1,000 NBA games and having endured 10 times that many taunts from spectators, the 38-year-old Seattle SuperSonics guard had no business waging a war of words with the diminutive courtside heckler at the Great Western Forum last season. But something about this fan—the Pillsbury Doughboy visage, the matter-of-fact delivery—struck Ellis as he guarded the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant on an isolation play near the wing. "Work him, Kobe, work him," the familiar voice intoned, and then the realization gripped Ellis like a 30-foot anaconda: Damn! That's Cube dissing me!
We hold these truths to be self-evident: You don't pitch a Diff'rent Strokes reunion to NBC. You don't invite Sergei Fedorov to your daughter's Sweet 16 party. And you sure as hell don't talk trash with Ice Cube, perhaps the most adroit lyricist of his generation, who once rhymed subpoena with Bosnia-Herzegovina. But Ellis, a fan of the rapper-actor-Lakers fanatic, couldn't check himself before he wrecked himself. "Work me?" the 6'7" shooting guard growled at Cube, who says he's 5'9" but would probably need to puff up his Afro to get there. "S—-, let's see your puny ass get down here and play some D."
The capping continued during Ellis's next several trips down the floor until Cube landed the knockout punch line: "Yo, Dale, let's go one-on-one. Just make sure we hit the court in June—'cause I know you don't show up come playoff time."
Ellis laughs at the recollection. "It's obvious he's a big fan," he says of Cube, "and I'm sure he can play the game."
Don't even get Cube started on that subject. "I can run a little point, and I'm not afraid to shoot," he says. His music is filled with less modest appraisals of his skills: In It Was a Good Day, he boasts, "Last week I f——- around and got a triple double."
Like many of today's platinum sellers, Cube enjoys making records, but he'd really rather be dishing to Chris Webber. He's tripping, of course, but can you blame him? In an era in which Dallas Cowboys cornerback Deion Sanders can release a widely panned but highly publicized rap CD, gender-bending rebounder Dennis Rodman can howl his lungs out onstage at a Pearl Jam concert and legions of professional athletes are infiltrating the music industry as performers, producers and label owners, the prospect of a rapper throwing down for the Lakers looms as the ultimate MTV cross-promotion. And don't think it won't happen: Earlier this year one of the last players cut by the Charlotte Hornets was a 6'4" guard named Percy Miller but better known as Master P, whose rapping, producing, filmmaking and business ventures made him $56.5 million last year alone. Asked to evaluate Miller's game, then Hornets coach Dave Cowens joked that he had to be careful because Miller "might be my boss one day."
Once as incongruous as hippies and showers, musicians and jocks have converged to form a mutual adoration society. The connections range from the fiery hookup between TLC's Lisa (Left Eye) Lopes and Kansas City Chiefs receiver Andre Rison, to the staggeringly improbable friendship between Jon Bon Jovi and New York Jets assistant coach Bill Belichick. "Most musicians respect athletes, and vice versa," says former NBA star Bill Walton, whose strong ties to the Grateful Dead began a quarter century ago. "The only difference is that musicians don't have the physical ability to sustain violent collisions—unless it's with the cops."
Athletes and musicians face common pressures at work (trying to succeed in a group or team context while being screamed at by some of society's most raucous spectators) and at play (they go to the same clubs and sweet-talk the same strippers). Often, their biggest turn-ons come from meeting one another. That's typical of many celebrities, but athletes and musicians are the ones living together on the edge. "Actors don't go through what we go through and what athletes go through, from the travel to the groupies to the constant interaction with the public," says Smashing Pumpkins singer and guitarist Billy Corgan, a Rodman confidant and a regular at Bulls games during the Jordan dynasty. "A real strong similarity is the pressure of having to perform on demand."
Some of the tightest bonds are between jocks and hip-hoppers, who have taken up the rock-and-roll mantle of fame-flaunting, drug-touting behavior. The rap game has seduced many professional athletes, the most prominent of whom, Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, released his fifth CD last September. "When you watch MTV, you can tell all the musicians want to be athletes, and when you watch ESPN, you can tell all the athletes want to rap," O'Neal says. "Remember, a lot of us came from the same place."
They're certainly in a lot of the same places now. Jocks routinely appear in music videos, and it's tough to attend any big sporting event without stumbling over at least a couple of MTV icons—from Cube, Snoop Dogg and Warren G (Lakers), to Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs (Knicks), R.E.M.'s Mike Mills (Atlanta Braves) and Mick Jagger (England's World Cup side). Last August the New York Yankees clubhouse was invaded by the Boss—not team owner George Steinbrenner but New Jersey-bred rock icon Bruce Springsteen, who signed the guitar of Yankees centerfielder Bernie Williams. Another Yankee, shortstop Derek Jeter, reportedly had a short-term romance with singer Mariah Carey. The Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson and the Sacramento Kings' Webber are among the NBA standouts who own small record labels. Aspiring hoopster Master P has taken the intermingling one step further by becoming a player in the agent business. His No Limit Sports Management represents Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams and NBA comers Ron Mercer (Boston Celtics) and Derek Anderson (Cleveland Cavaliers).